Geneva (AFP) – Enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture were just a few of the violations Eritrea was accused of during a UN review of its human rights record Monday.
Diplomats gathered at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva condemned the isolated and autocratic country’s brutal repression of basic rights, charging the lack of freedom was prompting a mass exodus.
The government of Eritrea’s “widespread violation of human rights and the lack of prospects for participatory democracy contribute to large numbers of Eritreans fleeing the country,” US representative Peter Mulrean told the assembly.
He was echoing the concerns of many of the 70 state representatives who spoke at Eritrea’s so-called Universal Periodic Review, which all 193 UN countries must undergo every four years.
Chile and others urged the country to probe all reports of enforced disappearances, Denmark said it had done far too little to eliminate torture, while Estonia lamented the “disregard of freedom of expression.”
Tesfamichael Gerahtu, Eritrea’s ambassador to Britain, batted away the slew of charges, insisting that if anything was limiting human rights in Eritrea, it was the “unjustified sanctions” imposed on the country by the international community.
“To add insult to injury, Eritrea has been subjected to a litany of accusations of gross violations of human rights,… (that) are mainly motivated by sinister political agendas,” he told the council.
Reporters Without Borders has ranked it the worst country in the world for press freedom, but Gerahtu insisted “There is no media censorship in Eritrea.”
He said the 10 journalists and 11 opposition politicians arrested in a 2001 crackdown — many of whom have since died in custody while others are still being held in secrete locations “were not detained because they expressed their ideas, (but because of) treason.”
“I wish there had been a lie-detector device there. It was a mockery,” exiled Eritrean journalist and writer Dessale Berekhet Abraham told AFP after listening to the session.
The 38-year-old who now lives in Norway said he knew Gerahtu well — he was once his teacher at Eritrea’s Revolution School — and that he didn’t take the “lies” personally.
“What else could he say if he wants to go back to Eritrea?” he asked.
Gerahtu meanwhile called on the UN diplomats to focus on Eritrea’s progress in areas like reducing maternal and child mortality rates and in fighting HIV, as well as its 2007 law banning female genital mutilation.
And, he said, the country would hold its first free elections since it won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 and implement a 1997 constitution once the threats against its “national security” had dissipated.
“Eritrea’s security situation does not and never has justified the denial of basic human rights to its people,” the British representative said.
Only when the country has a democratically elected government and a constitution that ensures basic rights “will Eritreans stop fleeing,” he added.
The UN refugee agency has registered more than 300,000 Eritreans refugees in neighbouring countries, with thousands fleeing every month, often under very dangerous conditions.
Eritreans, along with Somalis, accounted for most of the more than 300 migrants who perished in a boat tragedy off Italy’s Lampedusa last October.